The Great Gatsby, 1926

“They were careless people, they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

It speaks volumes that this one paragraph in a novel nearly 100 years old can be so prophetic when we think of the times we live in today. Indeed when you think of so many facets of our modern age, celebrity culture, the ascendance of the 1%, social media, it’s amazing how prescient the themes introduced in The Great Gatsby were. Allied to that, the ability of F Scott Fitzgerald to expand on these themes to include loss, grief and unrequited love in such spare language, with not a syllable out of place.

The Great Gatsby for me is the Great American Novel, and deserves its place in the pantheon of anglophone literature. As someone in the UK the book provides that critique of the American condition that we Brits can feel smug about, but without being excoriating. Instead the critique seems to come from a place of affectionate observation, the work of an individual who can coolly review his circumstances like a true insider. Fitzgerald’s use of language is spare and sparse throughout all his novels and short stories. This provides an easy experience for the reader whilst simultaneously provoking an emotional punch that is searing in its honesty.

Against this backdrop you can see how a book such as this has proved to be one of cinema’s greatest challenges. One that, arguably, Hollywood is yet to master.

You may have seen my previous post featuring the trailer for the movie. Unfortunately this trailer is the only known footage left from the film. The picture in its entirety is lost. Therefore we can only surmise what it contained from what we see in that trailer and from newspaper and fan magazine reviews.

Certainly, from what we see in the trailer there was quite a focus on jazzy parties and this is verified in reviews. This seems to be a regular and fundamental error in the many film adaptations over the years and perhaps why there hasn’t been a definitive portrayal of the novel. The excitement of the Jazz Age is the backdrop to The Great Gatsby but the real action lies in is America’s version of the class system, where the lowly Jimmy Gatz has to reinvent himself by nefarious means. The sadness lies in his futile attempt to win back the love of a superficial and deeply unhappy individual. The parties are one aspect to Gatsby’s desperate aim to join with a monied class who neither care for him or about him.

Plus there is the issue of casting. Tom Buchanan has been a more successful venture, surprisingly as he’s both stuck up and a thug, but it’s his cartoonish element that provides a useful hook for casting directors. However the pivotal roles of Jay and Daisy have proved more challenging, as it’s so difficult to transfer their charisma to the screen. For me Leonardo di Caprio is the definitive Gatsby. In an otherwise flawed attempt to capture the essence of the book, di Caprio has the looks, the charm but also the mass of insecurities and vulnerabilities, as well as Gatsby’s searing anger. Viewing the 1926 trailer and publicity materials, I’m not convinced that Warner Baxter brought this level of understanding to this role.

Speaking of casting, what of William Powell at this time? Well 1926 was proving to be a pivotal year for Powell at Paramount Pictures. The Great Gatsby was one of several solid roles that were building his profile, as well as the generally positive notices he received for his craft in newspapers and fan magazines. The part of George Wilson was certainly one such role and we know that Powell would have prepared carefully for the part.

Now it may seem incongruous to those familiar with Powell’s later work in talking pictures to equate the sassy, snappy conveyer of one liners in films like The Thin Man with the character of George Wilson. Tom Buchanan’s smugly dismisses the cuckold George as a man “so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive”. However for William Powell it was another opportunity to showcase the variety of his range.

Fitzgerald’s Hollywood Dream and Disillusionment

Fitzgerald unfortunately detested the screen version. Zelda wrote to her daughter, Scottie, “We saw The Great Gatsby at the movies… It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

This was to be a portent of things to come. Fitzgerald admired the modernity of Hollywood and wanted to be a participant in it but it was to no avail. Indeed at the time of his and Zelda’s visit to see The Great Gatsby, he was at work on a screenplay for a movie featuring Constance Talmadge. However this was to come to nothing. The screenplay was considered weak and as Fitzgerald wrote later,

“I… was confident to the point of conceit… I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words – an odd delusion on my part when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colourful prose style.”

He returned to Hollywood in 1937 but in poor physical and emotional health. The pull back to Hollywood was financial not artistic and there was a cynicism to his transactions there. Fitzgerald described a Hollywood gathering thus,

“The dinner party in fact looked just like a Metro movie—except for the lines. Since the writers could not balance the actors on their knees like ventriloquists and give them dialogue, everything was a bit flat—[William] Powell was facetious without wit—Norma [Shearer] heavy without emotion. Selznick snoring.”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This piece was written for the Silent Movie Day Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Silentology, where there are other fantastic silent movie pieces for you to enjoy!

References/Recommended Reading:

Crazy Sundays: F Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood – Aaron Latham

Slow Fade: F Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood – Arthur Krystal, The New Yorker

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tense, Unhappy Relationship with Hollywood – Deirdre Clemente, The Atlantic

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant


Sea Horses (1926)

It’s ironic that for the purposes of the What a Character Blogathon we are heading back into villainy as Powell’s previous outing White Mice was his actual first starring role, and I will come back to that picture at a later date.

Lorenzo Salvia, as portrayed by Powell, is a drunken Italian who abandons his wife, (Florence Vidor) and makes off for the island of Panda.

Inevitably Salvia’s dissipated lifestyle leads to his destruction before his wife can save him.

However despite all this drama Photoplay Magazine describes the pace of this lost picture as ‘snail-like’.

It is worth mentioning that around the time of filming Powell had been signed to a long term contract at Paramount – at this stage in his career Powell’s ability to play effective villains and secondary roles had enabled him to achieve some consolidation, even if this meant treading water in movies like Sea Horses which were little more than programmers. Despite such dull fare 1926 was to prove to be an exciting year for William Powell, with some exciting roles to come!

This piece forms part of the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Enjoy!


William Powell: The Life and Pictures – Roger Bryant

Photoplay Magazine, May 1926, p.52

Faint Perfume (1925)

There doesn’t appear to be much to say about today’s lost picture. Clearly a filler, this melodrama didn’t exactly create any buzz or excitement. Therefore, I am going to leave today’s post in the capable hands of the Photoplay Magazine reviewer:

“A good strong dose of the smelling salts will be needed to revive you after this. Taken from the popular novel by Zona Gale this hasn’t a thing to offer. Everything in the picture compares with the perfume. It’s faint entertainment. William Powell, who was so very grand in ‘Romola’ is the only person in the cast worth mentioning, and even he – oh, well, what’s the use.”

Which is why Photoplay Magazine still stands the test of time for sharp, contemporary writing even after 90 years!

References/Recommended Reading:

Photoplay Magazine, September 1925, p.104

A Clara Bow and William Powell Duet

“She dislikes gossip and is unquestionably the most gossiped about women in Hollywood…” according to Photoplay Magazine. Clara Bow was one of the defining spirits of 1920s America, the ‘It’ girl who was an idol for millions of working class girls across the industrialised world. Clara personified the flapper who could be impossibly glamorous while retaining her down to earth roots. Yet despite all that power in her image, as well as the oodles of cash they were making out of that image, Paramount wouldn’t dream of putting that to good use in quality film-making. Instead and despite the roaring success of her career defining film ‘It’, Clara was contracted to make run of the mill pictures such as ‘My Lady’s Lips’ and ‘The Runaway’, two films which also starred the up and coming William Powell.

For the purposes of this Dynamic Duos blogathon William Powell and Clara Bow are not an obvious choice – Bow’s biographer would certainly say that these two pictures that Powell and Bow appeared in together were the very opposite of dynamic, also borne out by contemporary reviews which were lukewarm to say the least. Stenn makes the powerful argument that Bow was at the acme of her career in 1926 having made ‘It’ and was raking in money for B P Schulberg’s Paramount Pictures. You would assume therefore that Clara Bow would have the pick of the best quality scripts and plum projects. However, Stenn reveals that the opposite was the case and Schulberg farmed Bow out to make bog standard fare such as My Lady’s Lips and The Runaway and in her naivety Bow was happy to acquiesce. What makes David Stenn such an interesting writer and researcher is how he exposes Hollywood and its history of exploitation of females and how this became normalised as part of its business model. Sadly this makes the recent Weinstein revelations no surprise whatsoever.

The dynamic part comes when you look at the career trajectory of William Powell in contrast to Clara Bow. It’s a tale of female disempowerment and class privilege that we’re becoming all too familiar with – Powell by this time had been signed to a long term contract at Paramount. After years of struggle as an actor, even playing the villain roles he was becoming known for, enabled him a level of financial comfort he’d never experienced in the decade before as he toiled away on the stage and in small movie roles. More comfort was to come for Powell however as by 1930 and the talking picture, unlike Bow, Powell was able to negotiate what projects he wanted to work on and how many pictures a year he intends to make. This was to be expected from the university educated son of an accountant – Powell’s father became his manager and negotiated both contracts and ensured Powell’s earnings were invested prudently enabling his son a level of freedom and power to control his career accordingly.

Clara Bow couldn’t have been more opposite, a background as far removed from Powell’s as it’s possible to imagine. Bow was a working class girl born into abject poverty in Brooklyn, the child of an alcoholic absentee father and a deeply troubled mother. Stenn in fact excoriates Bow’s father, Robert, as also ruthlessly abusive, more than willing to exploit Clara once she made it big in Hollywood and only interested in the level of financial return he could scam out of her to maintain his dissipated lifestyle. Allied to her lack of knowledge about contract and career management generally, Bow was also shunned by Hollywood ‘society’ for a supposed lack of decorum. No invites to San Simeon were sent Clara Bow’s way! Therefore, although remunerated handsomely, Bow was never given the opportunity to truly capitalise on her enormous talent for emotional expression.

This post is part of the Dynamic Duos Blogathon – please check out the other stories here!

References/Recommended Reading:

Clara Bow: Runnin Wild – David Stenn

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant